City College of San Francisco fights to save quality education

Keeping “community” in community college

For the last year, San Francisco Community College faculty have been under siege, not just from a newly-hostile administration, but from an accreditation commission that has threatened the District’s very existence.  To protect their institution, faculty have worked with students and community leaders, given up wages, campaigned for ballot measures to secure new funding, and defended their vision of community-centered education.

Unfortunately, AFT Local 2121 has been forced to fight at a time when cooperation is needed to save the school.  “Our hope was that the college would look at a long-term plan to stabilize it,” says Alisa Messer, local union president.  “What we have, however, is an administration that isn’t interested in talking with us.”

CCSF has 85,000 students and 1650 faculty.  It serves more students than any other community college in California, with an annual operating budget of $200 million.

In the spring of 2012, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) began its normal accreditation cycle.  Six years ago it had made various recommendations to the District, but issued no sanctions.  But in July 2012, it found the District deficient in 14 areas. The commission gave the college credit for a committed, student-centered faculty, and high-quality libraries and counseling, but said the college’s governance, planning and leadership were inefficient, and that it had not adequately documented “Student Learning Outcomes.”

The commission also said District fiscal planning was poor.  Over the past three years of the state’s fiscal crisis San Francisco has endured a $53 million loss in revenue, and suffered a $6 million operating deficit last year.  The unions and previous chancellors had avoided layoffs through temporary concessions.  But the ACCJC said there had not been enough cuts or cancelled classes, that too much (92%) of the budget was spent on personnel, and that too few administrators were on staff.

In other words, CCSF was faulted for keeping the cuts away from the classroom.

When the ACCJC issued its report, it put CCSF on “Show Cause” status, the most serious sanction short of shutting down the college entirely.  Faculty reacted with shock, and community leaders questioned the need for endangering the college’s future. 

Emergency measures
Just prior to the release of the commission report, the faculty union and the District had agreed to emergency measures, identifying more than $8 million in savings from faculty, including a 2.85% wage cut for the 2012-2013 school year.  Then faculty, students and labor campaigned for state Proposition 30 to prevent further cuts, and citywide Proposition A, a parcel tax to plug the hole in the District budget.

In their ballot argument for Prop A city political leaders, including trustee Anita Grier, promised that funds would be used to “maintain core academic courses...provide workforce training... provide an education that prepares students for four-year universities; keep City College libraries and student support services open; keep technology and instructional support up to date, and offset State budget cuts.”  Opponents, represented by the Libertarian Party of San Francisco, borrowed the ACCJC’s arguments, including the charge that 92% of the budget was used for salaries, and that department heads had too much power.

District budget projections showed several possible election outcomes.  In the worst case, if both Props A and 30 failed, the District projected a shortfall of $24.5 million.  Without Prop A, the hole would be $10 million.  But if both passed, the District projected a modest surplus.

In late October the CCSF board appointed a “special trustee,” Bob Agrella, past president of Santa Rosa City College.  The board retained its ability to meet and make decisions, but Agrella  was given the power to veto decisions about the school’s response to the ACCJC.  On November 1 the board hired an interim chancellor, Thelma Scott-Skillman, retired president of Folsom Lake College near Sacramento.

Upending expectations
In November voters passed Prop 30.  Prop A won with 73% of the vote, and the college community felt more hopeful.  In December, however, District negotiators announced they would impose a 4.4% “annualized” wage cut on faculty, retroactive to July, on top of the previously negotiated 2.85% cut. The administration refused to bargain, claiming the contract gave it the right to take such action, and imposed the cuts.  As of January, faculty had lost an additional 9% from each paycheck.

Scott-Skillman produced a new budget projection.  On the line where Prop A income had been listed previously there was—nothing.  The District had decided to use all Prop A monies ($14 – 16 million) to increase reserves and fund pension liabilities.  The administration claimed this was a mandate from ACCJC, regardless of promises to voters.

The San Francisco Labor Council warned,  “San Francisco’s labor leaders and their unions—and many rank and file members—helped organize, finance, and lead the way to secure significant new revenue sources for the college...[but] the District is failing to engage in constructive contract negotiations and instead proposing further concessions.”

AFT 2121 filed a grievance and an unfair labor practice charge, accusing the District of violating the contract through the imposed cuts.  Agrella told the state community college board of governors these objections were keeping the college from meeting the ACCJC’s recommendations by the March 15 deadline. 

What people feared
Shanell Williams, urban studies major and president of the Associated Students at CCSF, worked on the Prop A campaign.  “Many people asked us how we could be sure the college would use the money for keeping classes and accessibility.  Now the administration is doing what people feared,” she says.  “Students are scared about the future of the college.  The administration must do what it takes to keep the college open, without squeezing out the most at-risk students or forcing extreme cuts on the faculty.” 

The use of ACCJC recommendations to justify extreme salary cuts worried community college union leaders across the state.  In a letter to CCSF trustees, 16 CFT local officers warned, “Maintaining the college’s accreditation is paramount...but your actions at the bargaining table directly threaten this progress and should stop. The CFT will not stand for accreditation being used by the District as an excuse for advancing additional, permanent pay cuts and reductions in health benefits and threatening to impose them if the union doesn’t acquiesce.”

By March 15 the District will tell the ACCJC the steps it has taken to meet its recommendations.  Newly-elected trustee Rafael Mandelman says that meeting the commission’s recommendations should be “a collaborative process that requires a lot of input from students, that has to be negotiated with employee groups.”  But faculty, staff and student groups have generally been left out of the decision-making, while concerns have been raised about the ACCJC process itself (see sidebar, and President’s Column on page 2). 

The precipitous and unprecedented move of CCSF being placed directly on “Show Cause” status without any intervening sanctions left faculty and observers across the state wondering about ACCJC’s motives—a mystery deepened by the agency’s lack of transparency.  But some parties were more forthcoming. 

For instance, Robert Shireman, director of California Competes in San Francisco, and former deputy undersecretary of education in the Obama administration, wrote an anti-faculty op ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, which has been unremittingly hostile and one-sided in both its news coverage and editorial policies toward City College.  In a followup interview in another publication, Shireman said that although the commission needed more enforcement tools than forcing a closure, “At some point you have to let the hatchet fall.”

Serving the broader community?
“In this worldview, education reformers are concerned about completion rates and increasingly call for ‘performance metrics.’ We see community colleges as institutions serving the broad community,” says Messer.  “At CCSF, our students move in and out, they have jobs and kids, they are here to move up in their careers or retrain. Some are immigrants learning English, while others are seniors here for activity or lifelong learning.  Not everyone is coming for a degree. We have a college and a community that values this inclusive and diverse approach, and we need an accreditation process that takes this approach into account.”             

Comments faculty member and Local 2121 Executive Board member Allan Fisher, “Federal government’s pressure on the accreditation commissions to sanction more colleges [comes from] very wealthy activists like Bill Gates who represent corporations and large foundations. Their efforts to ‘improve accountability’ through measured outcomes and the demand to push students through faster are likely to discourage students and limit educational opportunities.”

Already the college has suffered an enrollment drop-off due to the relentless negative publicity in the city’s only daily newspaper, especially its alarmist reporting that makes loss of accreditation and closure seem inevitable.  Loss of enrollment will mean a reduction in state funding, just as Props A and 30 kick in.  One possible lifeline: Assemblymember Paul Fong is introducing legislation that would allow community colleges under severe accreditation sanction, and that have secured a new funding source (such as Prop A), to avoid any loss of current year revenue. This could provide colleges with an important funding bridge, enabling them to preserve access for students while maintaining an appropriate level of faculty and staff to serve them.

When the District’s report to the ACCJC is made on March 15, Special Trustee Agrella will ask for either an extension of time, he says, or for the District to be put on probation, a less severe sanction than “Show Cause.” 

Whatever the commission’s decision, it is clear that the staff and faculty at CCSF now have a difficult road to restore confidence and trust in a major public institution, and they are organizing to make that happen.  “We can and will address our problems, and we will survive as a college that keeps the “community” in community college,” said Messer.  “But it will take some time to repair the damage done by the ACCJC, and by those unwilling to engage the broader community in constructive dialog and change. We demand an inclusive, balanced, and fair approach to ensure that the changes we make are in the interest of improving our college and maintaining the learning opportunities that San Franciscans deserve.” 

By David Bacon

Education reformers are concerned about completion rates and increasingly call for ‘performance metrics.’ We see community colleges as institutions serving the broad community.

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